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Lebanon and UN in spat over Syrian refugees' return

UN is angered by Lebanon's decision to freeze renewal of residency permits for staff.

Lebanon's caretaker foreign minister has accused the UN refugee agency of discouraging Syrian refugees from returning to their war-torn country as a public spat between the Lebanese government and the agency deepened on Wednesday.

"It's time to tell them enough. That's it," Gibran Bassil said.

Bassil spoke to reporters during a visit to the eastern town of Arsal near the border with Syria, days after he ordered a freeze on the renewal of residency permits for UNHCR staff.

He frowned at the agency's emphasis in their questions to refugees on the lack of security guarantees and compulsory military service back home, and telling them the agency would halt assistance in the event of their return.

"Actually, they are telling them not to go back," Bassil said.

The UN is angered by Bassil's accusations and Lebanon's decision to freeze renewal of residency permits for staff.

"This directly impacts UNHCR's ability to effectively carry out critical protection and solutions work in Lebanon. UNHCR hopes the decision of the foreign ministry will be reversed without delay," spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in New York.

'Financial burden'

Lebanon has the highest proportion of refugees in the world - more than 1.5 million, which constitutes about a quarter of the country's population, putting a huge strain on the economy.

Authorities in Lebanon have long complained about the burden the country carries, with officials saying it costs the country about $8bn a year. 

Some groups calling for their return made major gains in last month's parliamentary elections as sentiments against the refugees have been increasing.

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